Title: Beautiful Boy
Directed By: Shawn Ku
Starring: Michael Sheen, Maria Bello, Alan Tudyk, Moon Bloodgood, Kyle Gallner, Meat Loaf, Deidrie Henry
Tackling inherently emotional and real material on the big screen is nearly impossible. No matter how you approach it, there will always be someone to say the situation was misrepresented or sensationalized. While that is the case to a point with Beautiful Boy, the performances are so captivating, it’s possible to push that instinctive judgment aside.
Moody kids call home from college all the time; they’re stressed over an upcoming exam, having trouble with friends or perhaps are just a little homesick. But little did Kate and Bill Carroll (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) know that when their son, Sam (Kyle Gallner), finally decided to return their calls, he wasn’t just frazzled over typical college pressures. The morning following their phone call, Kate and Bill got word that a crazed gunman struck on Sam’s college campus and that the gunman was their son.
Not only must they mourn the loss of their only child, but fight off news hungry reporters, angry neighbors and Sam’s distraught classmates all while trying to figure out whether this was their fault. Kate’s brother offers to take them in to avoid the news crews camped out on their lawn, but even in the safety of his home, their marital troubles, the presence of Kate’s young nephew and the constant news reports painting their little boy as a heartless murderer consume them.
Clearly, Beautiful Boy isn’t an easy watch. Right from the start there’s a hint that something’s wrong through the gentle suggestion that Kate and Bill’s marriage is suffering and the lack of interest in planning a family vacation. Writer-director Shawn Ku and his co-writer, Michael Armbruster, further drive the point home during a three-way call between the parents and their son. While Kate and Bill both assume Sam is just having a tough time through their phone conversation, we can actually see Sam and are well aware that far more is at stake. It’s an incredibly strong and well-paced opening, making you desperate to jump through the screen to warn the parents that their son isn’t right.
But, of course, as that’s impossible, the parents remain primarily unaware and the son they once believed to simply be a shy kid lashes out at his teachers and classmates committing one of the most vicious acts of school violence in history. From that point on, Beautiful Boy is the story of Bill and Kate’s emotional journey; it’s a performance-based piece and both Sheen and Bello seize the opportunity.
While both make it quite clear that Kate and Bill’s relationship lacks the zest it once did, once tragedy strikes, not once do you ever doubt that one would abandon the other. They may not share the same bed, but that inherent passion for one another is ever present and becomes a source of hope for the viewer to latch onto so that Beautiful Boy doesn’t simply turn into a piece where the leads solely wallow in their sorrows. When things do boil over during a particularly heated argument, it makes the moment hit that much harder. Then again, thanks to the subject matter, there are a hefty handful of scenes drenched in misery. For the sake of this being a film and its entertainment value, you wish they could suck it up and move on, even if it’s just the slightest bit, but, on the other hand, you can’t help but to think that this might really be how parents would experience this struggle and perhaps it shouldn’t be glossed over.
Bello and Sheen both deliver such incredibly honest performances, they pull the story out of its gloom by highlighting one of the film’s most unique assets; it covers a side of this type of issue that’s never publicized and often goes unrecognized. The dichotomy of their suffering is overwhelmingly thoughtful. You can’t help but to sympathize with them as mourning parents, but, on the other hand, when putting yourself in the place of the parents of the students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, how can you not blame the parents of the killer?
This concept is further developed through Bill and Kate’s stay at her brother, Eric (Alan Tudyk), and his wife Trish’s (Moon Bloodgood) home. While Eric, Trish and their son are presented as the family Kate, Bill and Sam should be, the severity of the situation tears even them apart ever so slowly, so as to really bring the contention to life in a more well rounded fashion. And, while his screentime may be limited, there’s no forgetting the influence of Gallner who delivers an appropriately eerie and unforgettable performance.
Ku assembled an absolutely fantastic cast and knew it. Rather than utilizing fancy camerawork or even simply resorting to standard performance coverage, he opts to go handheld with a documentary-like style, a method that comes across as how we might view the action should we be standing there ourselves rather than a camera trying to tell us the story.
It’s hard to call Beautiful Boy enjoyable and when the sadness hits a peak, it leads you to write it off as the slightest bit exploitative, but the performances are just so raw it’s nearly impossible not to be swayed. While Ku certainly doesn’t wrap things up neatly, he does manage to evoke the slightest bit of hope for the credits roll, which is just enough to make this rather gloomy experience worth your while.
By Perri Nemiroff